For Whom the Bell Tolls Summary

The book begins when the young American Robert Jordan, who voluntarily participates in the civil war in Spain on the Republicans’ side, receives a mission from the base. He needs to destroy the bridge before the enemy crosses it. It is essential task and a mission of first priority because if fascist bring the reinforcements through that bridge in time, a big part of the frontline will be lost for Republicans. 

One of the locals named Anselmo guides Robert to the partisan squad nearby saying that they might help or at least allow to spend several days in their hidden camp. Their commander named Pablo is a famous and respected fighter: at the beginning of the war he led the partisan squad and became a living nightmare for the fascists. But now he is already tired and old and - what is more important - rich, so he doesn’t want to participate in such a risky task. Actually he thinks about retirement. He doesn’t treat Robert well and this tension isn’t just personal. Jordan starts to worry that Pablo can betray the whole mission.

But suddenly Robert gets unexpected aid from Pilar - Pablo’s “woman”. It is unusual for elderly half-Gypsy woman to have more respect amongst the fire-forged warriors than their own commander, but it appears that Pilar is a real, though not elected openly, leader of a squad. Pilar says that the one who seeks safety will lose everything one day, so they must aid Robert. She is not only a devoted and honest Republican and a good leader who never turns away from the chosen path. This strong and wise woman also possesses the gift of clairvoyance. At first Robert’s night in the camp she reads his palm and sees that his life on Earth is coming to an end. She also sees his true love - a girl from the camp, Maria, who joined the squad after the fascists killed her parents and raped her. This love is rare in its brightness and purity, but is equally tragic, because the lovers will have so little time together. Pilar doesn’t interfere when Maria comes to Robert that night. On the contrary she takes care of nobody interrupting them. All the time Maria was with the squad, Pilar slowly healed her soul and now she understands that this love is the only thing that can completely return her to life.

The next day Robert starts his preparations. He instructs Anselmo to watch the road and another partisan, Raphael - to monitor the change of the watchmen at the bridge. He himself, along with Pilar and Maria, go to El Sordo, the commander of a neighboring partisan detachment. On the way Pilar tells him her story. She saw how a revolution began in her and Pablo’s small hometown and how the locals murdered the fascists from that town. People stood in two lines, one line in front of the other, face to face. They held chains and sticks and drove the fascists through that formation. It was done not only for cruelty and publicity, but for everyone to take his or her part of responsibility for the deed. Every fascist was beaten to death and thrown into the river - even those who were known as good people and neighbors. The priest who supported fascists was killed right during the prayer. Everyone died differently: some faced death with dignity, some begged for their life and cried. Pilar says that if God exist he discarded Spain that day, because if He exists how could He allow such a meaningless civil war? 

Pilar’s story awakens Robert’s own memories. He has a particular reason to fight in Spain now. He was a Spanish teacher in university, he frequently visited Spain before the war, loves Spanish people and way of life and deeply cares about their fates. Jordan isn’t fond of Communism but he hates Fascists for bringing war to his beloved country. He feels obliged to help end this war, and then he dreams to retire, return to his favourite job, write a book about his life at war and finally free himself from the horror he experienced during his service.

But despite his optimistic dreams Robert understands that he can die on his mission. He has too few people, seven from Pablo’s squad and seven from El Sordo’s. There are too many complicated tasks for them: they have to eliminate watchmen, cover the road while the explosives are set… it seems almost impossible. Robert wonders why shall all this happen right after he met his true love, are these three days they have left all he can take from life? However he comes to the conclusion that three days can substitute all his life if he lives them at his fullest.

Finally, Robert, Pilar and Maria reach El Sordo and the partisan leader agrees to give them horses and participate in mission. But on their way back the snow starts to fall. It falls and falls covering the ground with a dense white layer and showing their footprints. This unusual weather phenomenon in the end of May can disrupt all their plan. Also, when they arrive to the camp they see that Pablo got drunk again and Robert is seriously worried that Pablo will do them more harm than good. He even starts to insult Pablo provoking him to attack first and though giving himself the right to injury or even kill him, but Pablo ignores him. In the end all the squad agrees that Pablo can not be trusted anymore, he isn’t a brave and persistent commander he was before. Pilar is gained even more authority and Robert volunteers to kill Pablo if it will be needed. But soon Pablo gets sober and says that he was wrong and he won’t repeat such a shameful behaviour anymore.

In the meantime in Madrid, a friend of Robert, Russian journalist named Karkov learns through his own informers that the Fascists already know about Republicans plans to attack. He also knows that his friend is somehow involved in this operation. Worried for Robert, he immediately travels there.

El Sordo soon provided horses, as he promised, for partisans to retreat after the sabotage. But because of the snow Fascist tracked the horses’ hoofprints back to his camp before El Sordo was able to transport the animals to Pilar’s camp. Robert hears the screams and shooting from the side of El Sordo’s cam’ but he can’t do anything but listen to the echo of a desperate battle: if they interfere, the whole mission will be failed.

The whole squad of El Sordo is dead. The Fascist lieutenant climbs the hill covered with corpses of his soldiers and partisans, says a short prayer and bitterly thinks about the horrors of war. Now he looks absolutely similar to Republican soldier.

But this is only the beginning of Robert’s misfortunes. In the morning Pilar wakes him up to report that Pablo fled from the camp taking the detonator box with him. This makes things complicated and much more risky but still not impossible.

Anselmo reports to Robert that the Fascists brought the machinery. Robert writes a detailed report to the commander of the front, General Golz, informing him that the enemy is clearly aware about the Republican attack to come, so they can’t be taken by surprise anymore. One of the partisans, Andres, agrees to deliver the letter to the General. If he manages to do this until the dawn, Golz will, most likely, postpone the attack and the diversion won’t be necessary anymore. But still Robert has to prepare it.

On the last night, lying next to Maria, Robert sums up all his life and comes to the conclusion that it has sense. He met his love and is going to fulfil his duty. It’s not death he afraid of but failure. Robert remembers his grandfather who also served as a soldier in a civil war, but in America - in the war between the North and the South. Probably that war was as horrible as the one Robert witnesses himself. His grandfather told him that ordinary soldiers from both sides had nothing in common with the ideologists of the war. Maybe Anselmo was right and those fighting against Robert and the partisan aren’t true Fascists also, but just people who want a better life, just like Republicans? Robert promptly forbids himself to think about it, afraid to lose his anger he still needs to plant the explosives and kill the enemy.

In the morning Robert encounters unexpected visitors: Pablo has gathered new horses and men and returned with them to the camp. He apologizes saying that he indeed behaved like a coward and drunkard and moreover, he did throw the detonator from the cliff, but then he felt bitter remorse and realized that he wouldn’t be able stay in safety knowing his former comrades were fighting and dying. Than he used all the authority he had left to gather anyone willing from neighboring village and return to aid and oppose the Fascists.

Not knowing if Andres managed to deliver the report to Golz, Robert decides to act as it was planned. He orders Maria to stay with the horses and wait for the rest to return. If the attack of the Republican starts everyone else will know what to do to complete their mission. Robert and Anselmo go to the bridge and eliminate the watchmen. Robert plants the explosives and they both wait. Now everything depends of General’s decision.

But we, as readers, know that Andres didn’t reach the General. Having overcome the difficulties of moving through the frontline and almost being blown up by hand grenade, Andres was caught right near General’s camp, but not by Fascists. The Republican officers interrogate him, suspicious with Andres going so far. Finally, with the help of Karkov who arrived almost in time to confirm the dreadful news in the letter, Andres persuades them to allow him give Golz the letter - but it is too late, the attack рфы already started.

Seeing the allies charging, Robert blows up the bridge. Old Anselmo, incapable to run away fast, dies in explosion. Robert manages to retreat with others, but a missile explodes near his horse, a frightened animal falls breaking Robert’s leg. He understands that now he will be a burden for others slowing them down. The partisans also understand that they have to sacrifice one for the survival of many.

The hardest thing for Robert is to persuade Maria to leave him. He tells her that after that beautiful three days they had they will always be together. Maria will take him away with her, wherever she goes he will always be with her. So if she saves herself, she will save Robert also. After short but heartbreaking farewell Pablo and Pilar gently draw Maria away, retreating with the rest of the partisans. They leave a machine gun to Robert, so that he can cover them and slow down the pursuit.

Robert lays behind the machine gun, leaning against the tree trunk. He thinks about his life and the world, that is actually a good place worth fighting for. The world gave him the years of happy life and the whole three days with the woman he loves with all his heart. Robert finds peace in herself, not considering himself a murderer anymore - killing and death are a natural, though sad, course of things. One can kill if they have to, the main thing is not enjoy killing. Now he is ready to kill Fascists to save his love and end his own life with dignity. He needs at least to kill the officer, breaking the morals of the enemy squad. It can save lots of precious time for Maria.

The book ends with Robert seeing the enemy officer coming closer to his hideout - entering the shooting range. Robert aims feeling the incredible harmony and unity with the surrounding forest, hearing his heart beating in tune with the world.